Azerbaijani activists protest against police brutality in Baku

Azerbaijani activists protest against police brutality in Baku
Police at first surrounded the demonstrators with two police walls, preventing them from moving forward. / Ulviyya Ali
By Javid Agha in Baku May 16, 2022

A group of civil society activists held a rally in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan on 14 May, demanding an end to brutality against government critics and journalists.

Anonymous attacks against government critics started on 1 December 2021 at a demonstration  in support of Saleh Rustamli, an imprisoned opposition figure who was on a hunger strike. Tofig Yagublu, former deputy chairman of the Musavat Party was beaten after his arrest, but the prosecutor dismissed the case, and authorities went as far as claiming that he 'beat himself'.

Later in April, activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev reported that he was kidnapped and tortured by 'unknown assailants'.

The most recent case was when journalist Ayten Mammadova was threatened by an unknown man at knifepoint and told her to "keep her mouth shut".

"Since the end of last year, the number of beatings, abductions and extraordinary torture of public activists, politicians and journalists has increased in the country. [...] Our goal in the march is to draw public attention to these cases and demand that the state stop them. We want to show that despite these threats, we are united and still silent, and public opinion is on our side," 20-year-old Rustam Ismayilbayli, one of the organisers told bne IntelliNews.

Ilkin Rustamzade, another organiser and ex-political convict told bne IntelliNews that they wanted to attract attention to the threats against activists which otherwise could have turned into political assassinations.

Pro-government personalities already started to label organisers of the events the '5th column' of the USA in Azerbaijan, way before the rally. Ali Babazadeh, a member of the Youth Wing of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, accused protestors of performing "a show" for grants from National Endowment for Democracy.

MP Javid Osmanov from the ruling party said in the parliament meeting that "certain forces" are trying to undermine socio-political stability in Azerbaijan. “Grants have been allocated by some pro-Armenian foundations for this purpose, and it is planned to allocate grants in May. As a result, there will be calls to destabilise Baku and some regions on May 14. In doing so, they are trying to undermine the growing prestige of our country," he said.

Hajiyev, who was also one of the co-organisers of the May 14 rally, said the demonstrators were protesting against the lack of investigation into the attacks on the opposition, including his case. "Despite that there were security cameras around and it took more than 20 days to investigate, law enforcement and the Ministry of Internal Affairs are uninterested in the case. The same goes for the case of Ayten Mammadova, MIA had all the necessary technical equipment to solve this case in an hour or two," Hajiyev told bne IntelliNews.

"There were also non-published threats directed to our family members, and their children, which forced us to make this protest. Otherwise, the Azerbaijani government may resort to political assassinations and other threats," he added.

Since the Second Karabakh War there have been few protests in Azerbaijan, owing to the fact that the victory diverted attention in the country. According to another initiator of the protest, Giyas Ibrahimov, the Azerbaijani political authorities have now entered a new stage in the methods of suppressing the political opposition.

"This is now evident in the government's attempts to minimise its involvement in this pressure. That is why I consider this situation to be more of a mafia-type systemic pressure. With this new methodology of pressure, the state tries to present itself more clearly than before, but the pressure on the country's political, intellectual and freedom of information does not change the nature of the source of power. The state is also using the geopolitical situation for its own domestic political purposes," he said, hinting at the latest situation formed around the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

"Many claims that government has become pro-Western in this new global political situation. I can say that if this is the case, then the political government, which is trying to look pro-Western, is therefore resorting to a method of repression, which is a hybrid of state-mafia, which tries to show 'non-state actors' as culprits for domestic political pressure," he said.

Rally participants chanted the slogans “We don't want a criminal state”, “Queers against violence”, “Don't kill justice, stop the crime” and others. Police at first surrounded the demonstrators with two police walls, preventing them from moving forward. The crowd was eventually allowed to continue along their route and ended the rally in front of the Internal Affairs Ministry, reading a statement.

Although 26 prisoners were detained and later released, the Ministry of Internal Affairs spokesperson Elshad Hajiyev posted on Facebook that "a group of people held a rally in Fountain Square in Sabail district" and "no incident was reported during the protest. No one was detained during the rally".

Mehman Huseynov, a journalist and one of the organisers of the rally, told bne IntelliNews: "Although the behaviour of the police at today's rally seemed civilised, there was violence against many protesters. This time there was no violence against the organisers of the rally, who were detained shortly before the rally and taken out of the city. For example, we [Ulvi Hasanli and I] were taken to a car in a very civilised, calm manner and removed from the area. There was no physical or psychological pressure in the car. In general, the behaviour of the police has improved compared to previous protests."

"They were very careful and fearful in their behaviour during this trip," he said. "Because the organisers of the action were not of any political party, but also journalists, bloggers, public activists, human rights activists, and representatives of civil society. And this unity confused the police, I think they just could not calculate how we would behave in case of violence. I would also like to note that the most subtle point of this protest was that it was not a protest for the sake of protest. The organisers of this action are already fed up with the events in the country. It was a spontaneous and cold-hearted decision. Law enforcement agencies felt that the protesters would no longer behave calmly and discreetly, so they did not resort to any provocations and did not see the need to increase this concern," Huseynov said.

Ulviyya Ali, who covered the rally as a journalist, witnessed police violence against not only against activists but also media people covering the event: "While covering today's rally, one of the policemen pushed me, I turned around and asked why he was pushing. Then I stepped forward to continue my work, and he kicked me from behind, and the other policemen began to pull him back. In general, there was violence against journalists again, this time, even if not openly, they beat us from behind, kicked our feet," she said. "For example, when the police surrounded the protesters, we had to stand behind them because they did not let us go near. At that time, they were squeezing our feet with their heels, and I'm sure it was purposeful because it happened to me twice. Also because they did the same to others. They wanted to create the impression that there was no interference in the action, but this was not the case," she said.

The LGBTQ+ community has also recently become active in the internal politics of Azerbaijan. Ali Malikov, a 17-year-old activist who took part in the rally, told bne IntelliNews: "When the police approached the centre, they also blocked the main way to prevent people from joining the protest. We were able to enter the protest location through the passage from the shopping centre. Before the rally began, many people were already detained, and even when they were walking on the street, they took people they knew would take part in the action and took them to police stations or off-the city places. As we continued to march in protest, we were pushed to the ground by the police. They pulled my friend's hair, sexually harassed us, touched our bodies, and insulted us. The participants, who were a little behind, were forcibly dragged through thick police rings and beaten in a places invisible to the cameras. They twisted the arms, wrists and legs of our comrades, and kicked and punched some of them. Later, when I responded to the insults of the police, they grabbed me by the arms and tried to take me out of the middle of the protest. When I resisted, two to three policemen grabbed me by the hair and threw me to the ground," he said.

Even though his friends pointed out to the police that he was a minor, police still beat him: "They kicked me in the leg, laughed and threw my LGBTQ+ flag in my face. All of this violence was carried out on camera-free angles to hide it from the press," he said.